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So which is it? An altered anthem or no changes at all? The cancellation of ten percenters, or no?  Supporting efforts for family planning as an essential element of our foreign or not?  Why the sudden rash of flip-flops just in these last couple of weeks? Are they planned or was it in fact just dumb planning?

None of these is as vital as the uproar produced by the Harper government’s announcement that it won’t support contraception as part of its commitment to maternal care. It’s not only bigger than these other issues, it’s also a matter of life and death. The Conservatives clearly know this but they prevaricate, making it virtually impossible to know their true position. The research is just far too conclusive to doubt that any program to help women in poorer nations that doesn’t involve efforts to assist with family planning will consign many of those very women to their deaths. When Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon informed a parliamentary committee yesterday there are serious questions about whether the use of contraception saves lives, he uttered a profound and perverse lack of knowledge on the file.

He knows well enough that some two million women and babies die each year in childbirth. Researchers worldwide concluded some time ago that these deaths would have been easily preventable through the use of condoms. So, yes, Mr. Cannon, contraception does save lives on a huge scale.

The present government has countered with claims that the other members of the G8 appreciate Canada’s leadership on this file, especially in light of the G8/G20 summits soon to take place in Canada. This too is an illusion. When Stephen Harper announced that he would make child and maternal health a key issue in those summits, our partners naturally agreed that it would be an appropriate discussion for the venues. But to then say that our international donor partners appreciate that Canada won’t make family planning one of the key underpinnings of any new policy is a complete fabrication. I phoned friends in the international development ministries of two of those partners today and they could only express complete confusion and frustration at the Canadian position. These two nations, along with other G8/G20 countries, include contraception as a key element to their own plans for assisting with child and maternal health.  “What are you folks doing?” one of them uttered as we signed off. The reality is, I don’t have an answer.

Why would the Conservative government cause such a uproar just in time for the summits? There is a chance it just might be a political ploy. Consider this. At a meeting with the African Union a week ago, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Leonard Edwards, and the Prime Minister’s personal representative, said that they will support the full package of Maternal Health for Africa and the summits. At a civil society meeting shortly after that, groups assembled were assured that the Canadian government would, again, support the complete package.

What are the Conservatives doing? They say one thing at home and another overseas. While confusion reigns in Ottawa over this issue, African countries are receiving full assurance that contraception will be included in any Canadian aid design for child and maternal health.

Confusion also reigns in Calgary, where today I took part in a panel on international development at the University of Calgary. Those in attendance can’t make heads or tails of the Conservative policy – and this is in the very epicentre of the Conservative base. Confusion reigned today, and one panelist who attempted to stay as non-partisan as he could had to proclaim that to have an aid plan for women that failed to protect them from unwanted and life-threatening pregnancies is just insane.

This issue is far too vital to play shell games with. Why confuse Canadians when the subject of the lives of some two million women are of real importance to them?  This will be a mortal mistake. Unless, of course, it’s all a game anyway? At which point if that’s true, this is the most perverse thing I’ve seen in politics.